Growing seed diversity

in the middle of the north sea

By Adèle Pautrat and Hannes Lorenzen

© Ökologisch Wirtschaften!

The island of Pellworm, with a surface area of 37 km2 and approximately 1000 inhabitants, belongs to the archipelago of the Frisian islands, which extends over 450 km along the North Sea coast, from Den Helder in the Netherlands to Esbjerg in Denmark. This area borders the Wadden Sea and is traditionally divided into three groups: in the south, the West Frisian Islands (Netherlands), further up, the East Frisian Islands (Germany) and in the far north, the North Frisian Islands (Germany and Denmark).

Since a particularly deadly flooding episode that occurred in 1634, about 60% of the archipelago is constantly under water. The remaining islets are sandy, peaty, and marshy landscapes, of which parts are below sea level. Deykes, up to 8 metres high, have been progressively built to protect the inhabited lands from the sea.

Under serious threat from global warming and rising sea levels, the Frisian archipelago is now managed in a coordinated manner by Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands as an international nature reserve listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It is now said that the island of Pellworm and the surrounding archipelago could disappear before the end of the century. And yet, this fragility, this vulnerability of a territory to climatic hazards has allowed the emergence of a local citizen's movement, at the origin of inspiring experiments in ecological transition.

© Ökologisch Wirtschaften!

Story of a civic commitment

In 1985, the provincial government of Schleswig-Holstein announced its intention to create the Wadden Sea National Park, with the will to better protect this unique and threatened natural area.

The inhabitants of Pellworm were strongly opposed to this project first, fearing the negative impacts of the considerable restrictions that would be imposed on the fishing and agricultural practices.

With this objective in mind, a group of islanders created the non-profit organisation “Ökologisch Wirtschaften!” - meaning "Towards an Ecological Economy!". Open to dialogue, they invited all the inhabitants to take part in strategic meetings aimed at drawing up a development plan for the island, based on renewable energies, organic farming and soft on-farm tourism.

A model of energy autonomy

Speaking of renewable energy, Pellwom is a resounding success.

Barely thirty years after the first installations of new clean energy infrastructures, owned by the islanders, Pellworm produces even more 100% renewable electrical energy than its own consumption from wind turbines, solar panels and biogas. It has been a conscious choice to limit the number of these installations in order to preserve the vernacular landscape.

The German energy law allows private and collective producers of energy to feed their surplus into the national grid and to sell the energy directly to consumers. This way not only islanders can buy Pellworm electricity, but also tourists regularly visiting the island, but living in Berlin or Hamburg.

Territorial cooperation, fair trade, soft tourism

From the outset, "Ökologish Wirtschaften!" has also been committed to promoting new forms of economic and commercial cooperation, both on the island and with the outside world.

In 1995, it initiated the European Eco-Island Network with the islands of Hiiumaa in Estonia, Alonysos in Greece, Elba in Italy, and La Palma in the Canaries.

One of the projects emerging from this cooperation was a pioneering network called the "wool connection" project, carried out with the Estonian island of Hiiumaa, which initiated the creation of a fair-trade production and marketing chain for woollen clothing in the 1990s.

The price for wool was not worth clipping the sheep at that time and there were no infrastructure for processing on Pellworm. Since people on Hiiumaa were looking for ways to develop their rural tourism, the Friesian farmers sent the wool to Hiuumaa, where a group of women started processing the wool with equipment dating from the Soviet era.

They spinned the wool, and knit jumpers, bonnets, and socks. The finished products were sent back and marketed in Pellworm and so created work and added value for both islands.

This project, which ended a few years ago, demonstrated the capacity of building a resilient and fair international network, based solely on the exchange of expertise and the sharing of means of production, without the need for investment and support from public authorities.

Regarding tourism, which remains one of the most important economic activities on the island, past transitions have allowed the development of activities focused on the discovery of nature, local ecological issues and the daily work of farmers.

However, more recently, foreign investment is growing, and tends to favour the development of luxury tourism, bringing new concerns and needs for dialogue between the islanders.

Another sensitive issue in Pellworm is agriculture, which now generates far less income than energy production or tourism.

Ensuring an effective agricultural transition

On Pellworm approximately 3000 hectares are cultivated of which one third is for cereal production, one third for permanent grasslands, and another third for fodder and biogas production. Milk production was dominant for a long time but declined due to low milk prices and high transport costs, while meat production increased. Sheep are mainly kept on dykes, beef is raised on organic and conventional farms and pigs are still raised in conventional holdings.

The number of farms has strongly decreased since the 1960's, due to the high transport costs and still missing facilities for processing. Today organic are doing much better than conventional farms because of significantly higher margins they can achieve with direct marketing. A mixture of incomes from farming, tourism and energy production is today the most significant model for a good income.

Since its creation, "Ökologisch Wirtschaften", has particularly fought for the development of infrastructures that would allow farmers to have their products processed locally. The local dairy industry produces island cheese which tourists appreciate. Several farmers also have launched direct farm sales channels to sell their produce, but it remains a niche, mainly aimed at tourists.

Most of the food products consumed on the island are still imported and the two supermarkets where the inhabitants buy their products offer only few local products.

As elsewhere, the challenges for the future demand more than converting to organic farming. It demands improved cooperation between local producers, better communication on the specific values and opportunities of the place and much mediation between the interests of the various stakeholders.

Pellworm has been a place for the production of conventional seeds in the past, because it offers good soil and climate conditions. Situated in the Wadden Sea National Park, the island could find an interest for the future in developing and producing organic seeds to boost local agricultural biodiversity. This is what we’ll be talking about during the informal European organic seed gathering in July, through the contribution of various stakeholders with various experiences.

© Ökologisch Wirtschaften!

interview with hannes lorenzen

Member of the association "Ökologisch Wirtschaften!"

Typical dykes and sheep of the Pellworm island © Adèle Violette

Seeds4All. "Surviving below sea level" was the title of "Ökologisch Wirtschaften!" 30th anniversary brochure. How does it feel living below sea in times of climate change?

Hannes Lorenzen. It is weird. We have lived with the threats of the North Sea for a long time, with floods which have taken a lot of land that was formerly cultivated. When you walk on the wadden ground at low tide you can still see the remaining signs of wells and houses.

So the danger was always there. But what we see coming demands more than building ever stronger dikes. It demands reasoning beyond our own survival. On the one hand the prospects of climate change seem devastating for us and so many islanders prefer to think “it’s not going to be in my lifetime”. On the other hand the younger people ask themselves what it means for them, including the question whether they leave or stay. We are exposed to the slim line between accepting a global challenge as given and irreversible for us, and the rebel energy of not accepting it. A young farmer of the island, Sophie Backsen, has this rebellious energy and has become an icon of young people in Germany. Together with two other farmers she took the German Government up to the Federal Supreme Court. The ruling said: the German government must take more serious action against climate change. This was a few months ago. And the government changed the national action plans. That was a groundbreaking success. So maybe if you are already living below sea level, especially on an island, you are more sensitive and develop higher levels of rebellious energy...

S4A. The vision of the non profit organisation "Ökologisch Wirtschaften!" in 1989 was to transform the island of Pellworm and to start a transition to an ecological economy, advocating the need for a balance between all economic sectors - agriculture, renewable energy, tourism. Is this balance achieved today?

HL. We have made big steps forward. But we have also missed opportunities. We were pioneers in local renewable energy systems in the 90s and we still are at the forefront of intelligent energy solutions. But we also have weak points in the system. The biogas plant provoked a competition for land from the beginning, as much land was transformed into unsustainable corn production to feed it. Even today the plant is not profitable. And who profits from the wind is not equally distributed either. It was good that only islanders could invest in wind energy. But of course only those who have the means to invest have the highest profits. So also in social terms I would not call that a balance. We have made great progress also in conversion to organic production. But side by side with conventional farming there is always stuff for friction. When people started conversion everyone said “they will go bankrupt”. Now they are much better off economically. And a third element is appearing. Tourism is moving big scale and away from local small on-farm offers. There are important investments into luxury tourism with external capital which might be changing the scene substantially.

S4A. The region is considered a disadvantaged area, heavily dependent on regional and European subsidies. Do you think your economy is becoming less dependent to subsidies?

HL. No, we are definitely not less dependent on external support, be it to reduce the costs of transport by ferry and trucks to far away processing facilities or suppliers.We cannot escape the growing global competition European farming is exposed to. And even if renewable energy and tourism is a good income for some, the overall socio-economic infrastructure including the school, health and support for the elderly depends on regional and national subsidies. There is still some way to go to get near self-sufficiency. Our credo was from the beginning: we want to transform disadvantages into advantages. That means preserving the beauty of nature and empowering the local community to make their living on the island.

S4A. One of the three pilars of the ecological transition is organic farming. What is the state of the transition and how has agriculture developed on the island over the last 30 years?

HL. We clearly see that conversion of almost half of the farming area is not enough for substantial transition. It is good to reduce the negative impact of chemical pollution. But to make the difference and install a resilient food and energy system much more is needed: more added value created on the island before exporting to the continent. That needs a different infrastructure and more cooperation between people; more promotion tourism which includes education, capacity building on the development of the island, in short more social and agro-ecological integration with the other sectors of the island economy.

S4A. And what could be the impact of the CAP reform on the island?

HL. The CAP reform just agreed by European legislators has again stopped short of the challenges we face in Europe. So much depends on the Strategic Plans for farming which are being decided by national governments. The support for rural infrastructure stays more or less the same, so it depends how we can make ourselves heard and use these opportunities. “Ecoschemes”, boosting organic farming and direct marketing sound all good, but it depends whether it can be absorbed with good local projects. And much will depend on the enforcement of existing legislation on soil and water quality and on farming practices. It seems much of the permanent grassland which is the best CO2 absorber was plowed recently by some farmers to grow corn for the biogas plant. That is illegal and counterproductive.

S4A. In 2018, your association celebrated its 30th anniversary by organising a cycle of visits and round tables dedicated to transitional agriculture. This year, you are inviting roundtables on visions for all with a focus on tourism. Why has this issue become a challenge on the island and how do you see it?

HL. As I said we are facing substantial investment into high level and luxury tourism which is starting to dominate the scene, changing the economic and social landscape. Prices for rent and houses have strongly increased. Young people do not find any housing and have to leave, some even commute between mainland and island to save costs. So, we need to talk, and see what could be the best solutions for the community.

Finding the best possible solutions within a community…a fact that resonates as a primary and global challenge, at a time of growing political disaffection in the ecological field, ant the increasingly obvious rise of natural disasters linked to global warming.

I - Adèle Pautrat - was born in 1993 and I can barely remember the time when I wasn't aware of climate change and its resulting problems, which I fully expect to face in my lifetime. Although dialogue is always the best way, it is so difficult today to expect and hope for compromise. There is so much to lose. Like a home, a territory. Even so, communities around the world remain, survive, organise themselves, like in Pellworm, and prepare to face the changes that can no longer be minimised.

During a more informal talk, I naively asked Hannes why staying and fighting on an island that is doomed to disappear. He answered me: "Frisians are stubborn. They are born to resist. We love to ride against the wind. It helps us take off and see more clearly. But we also have a hard time getting to grips with each other. Still much to be done below the sea…” What I get from it, is that natives never leave the ship until water reaches their feet...